Kieron Smith, Boy

By James Kelman

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 422 pages, $26

There are not many books out there with child narrators. It’s always a risky thing for a writer to do, for the pitfalls are numerous: the writing is not convincingly childlike, the narrator can become precocious, the style annoying. Not to mention the problem that it’s difficult to write on certain themes from the limited perspective of a child.

In Kieron Smith, Boy, James Kelman surmounts all of these problems. Kieron is clumsy, rough, and an overlooked younger brother often faced with more limitations than limitless horizons. Growing up in 1950s rural Scotland, his days are filled with playing in the parks and by the rivers, finding “lucks” in the local junkyard, fighting with other boys, and visiting his loving grandparents. His life in the world is vigorous, dangerous, and appealing.

Stepping indoors, however, as the boy’s horizon shrinks to the walls of his top-story apartment, so too does the scope and horizon of his life. Within his family, Kieron becomes the least priority, often overshadowed by his older brother Matt, who receives all the attention and affection of his parents. One wonders how much of this is accurately observed, and how much of it is — as should be expected — childlike exaggeration. Regardless, though, it is clear that as Kieron grows up, and moves to a new housing development, his opportunities and happiness continually shrink.

Despite this realism, Kieron’s outlook on the challenges of life is refreshingly undaunted. Life’s vagaries will inspire in the boy a railing against the unfairness of it all, which tends to be repetitive. But after falling down, Kieron unfailingly gets up and moves on to the next distraction. New schoolmates (not all of them the nicest of friends), neighborhood exploration, games of soccer, and the challenges posed to his climbing abilities by trees and buildings are the niches in which Kieron flourishes despite the unsympathetic eye by which the world often views him.

Perhaps the best thing about Kelman’s novel is its style. The writer and political activist has surmounted with astonishing grace and effortlessness all of the dangers of writing from the perspective of children, and while the prose can tend toward repetitiveness and nonsensical grammar (traits which, given the mood, premise, and character of the story, I view more as strengths than weaknesses), Kelman has established a style which is utterly convincing as a child’s worldview and thought process. The words “just” and “if” are constantly invoked, and run-on sentences abound. From an editor’s perspective, this novel is a nightmare.

But when one surrenders one’s critical mindset to the flow of the story, it works surprisingly well. How else than this could a child talk, think, and reason? It is innocent, but not too innocent; worldly, but ignorantly so, as is appropriate. Reading Kieron Smith, one remembers why it was that we wished to grow up so quickly when we were young. One remembers vividly the yearning, the endlessness of days, the surpassing tragedy of a parental restriction, a move from a familiar place to a new school, and the fear of approaching the opposite sex for the first time.

This story thrives in the specificity of its place and time, yet it is a childhood tale that will seem universal to the modern reader.